Morality in America

Our country faces a crisis of character.

Dr. Ream, who served for many years as pastor of the First Congregational Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, lives in retirement with his wife in Estes Park, Colorado.

Early in the nineteenth century the brilliant French observer Alexis de Tocqueville gave this estimate of America and Americans in his book Democracy in America: “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than America.”

A similar assessment could not be made at the end of the twentieth century. That is not to say that the Christian religion exercises any great influence over the souls of men in any nation today, but the loss of its original influence is certainly as great if not greater in the United States than anywhere else. Substitute the words “morality” or “ethics” for the words “Christian religion” and their influence would still be seriously questionable. One might perhaps even put it this way and not be far from the truth: There is no country in the world where the Christian religion has lost more of its moral influence over the souls of men than in America.

The high moral principles of the Christian religion have been corrupted by greed and envy, and greed and envy have caused and been exacerbated by the very programs America’s politicians have adopted in a misguided effort to eliminate poverty and inequalities of all kinds. It is impossible to have both liberty and equality, for the attempt to achieve the latter will always destroy the former. When government assures its citizens that they are entitled to be equal it does two things: It levels by pulling down those at the top, and it engenders greed and envy in those at the bottom.

There was once a commonly observed moral philosophy or moral culture in America, but that is no longer true. Today Americans have few generally held convictions concerning good and evil, right and wrong, morality and immorality. In part it is the consequence of our heterogeneous population resulting from the vast numbers of immigrants from countries of different cultures. Those who had been so anxious to come to America and enjoy its blessings have often brought with them philosophies and cultures inimical to those held by earlier settlers. As a consequence they have helped destroy the very blessings they sought. But the descendants of those earlier settlers have abandoned their forebears’ beliefs, and this has been a major factor in the waning of Christianity and ethics in America.

The generally held moral principles which once guided human action in America had their roots in the Christian religion as Tocqueville pointed out. One can argue that the Founding Fathers did not always agree in their interpretation of that religion—some were deists—but the great majority of them drew their moral and ethical guidelines from the Ten Commandments and the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth. They were of one mind in their conviction that there should be freedom of religion for all.

Religious Beliefs of the Founders

The most orthodox and ardent believer among the principal figures urging freedom from the constraints of England and King George III was Samuel Adams, who with other Sons of Liberty dumped the tea into Boston Harbor. A stern Calvinist, he believed liberty was dependent on the moral and spiritual principles enunciated in the New Testament. In a letter to John Scollay in 1776 he wrote,

Revelation assures us that Righteousness exalteth a nation—Communities are dealt with in this world by the wise and just Ruler of the Universe. He rewards or punishes them according to their general character. The diminution of public virtue is usually attended with that of public happiness, and the public liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.

At the other extreme, if it can be called extreme, was the deist Thomas Paine, whom Theodore Roosevelt is once said to have referred to as a “filthy little atheist.” In 1797, however, Paine started a movement in Paris to combat atheism. He did not believe in revelation nor did he believe the Bible was divinely inspired, but in the Prospect Papers, published in 1804 by Elihu Palmer, he wrote: “It is by the exercise of our reason that we are enabled to contemplate God in His works and imitate Him in His way. When we see His care and goodness extended over all His creatures, it teaches us our duty toward each other, while it calls forth our gratitude to Him.”

The idea that many if not most of the Founding Fathers were atheists or agnostics is incorrect. Not only were they devoutly religious, but they firmly believed that liberty and justice depended on an observance of the moral and ethical demands of the Christian religion.

Benjamin Franklin wrote to Ezra Stiles in 1790 that “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and His religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see . . . .”

It was Franklin who urged the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to begin the sessions with prayer: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”

Our first president, George Washington, rarely spoke of his religious beliefs but on one occasion wrote a letter to the Philadelphia-area clergy in which he stated his conviction that “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of Civil society . . . .” In his Farewell Address he declared, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

When he took the oath of office in New York, Washington did so with his hand on the Bible and afterward bent down and kissed the book.

Washington’s successor in office, John Adams, in an 1810 letter to Benjamin Rush wrote, “. . . religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free government but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society.”

Alexander Hamilton believed it was man’s relationship to God that gave birth to man’s natural rights: “The Supreme Being . . . endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which to discern and pursue such things as were consistent with an inviolable right to personal liberty and personal safety.”

Thus did the Founding Fathers state in various ways their firm conviction that a nation desiring individual freedom and national prosperity must be guided by high standards of morality and ethics and that such a moral philosophy could only grow out of a strong religious faith.

The Dissolution of Moral and Ethical Standards

Something has happened to the soul of America and millions of Americans know that what has happened is not good. Even some politicians recognize it and try to convince the electorate that the answer lies in the political arena. The answer, however, is certainly not to be found there. Politics is merely a reflection of the moral and ethical principles of society at large.

We have been urged over and over again by certain individuals and groups to become a value-free society, and that in large part is what we have become. A recent candidate for high office in Colorado insisted, as have many others, that values should not be taught in the public schools. One is tempted to ask if cheating should be acceptable and whether the purpose of public schools is to dump graduates into the work force with no concern for their character and integrity.

Today, lacking any commonly held moral and ethical principles, the test for government activity is not “is it moral and right?” but “is it politically expedient?” Instead of applying the test of sound morality and sound economic principles, political activity is tested by the reactions and pressures of minority groups. There is little distinction any more between morality and legality. Politically inspired legislation makes something right or wrong merely because it is the law and not because it is in harmony with eternal principles tested by 2,000 years of history. John Quincy Adams voiced the truth held by the Founding Fathers:

This principle, that a whole nation has a right to do whatever it pleases, cannot in any sense whatever be admitted as true. The eternal and immutable laws of justice and morality are paramount to a legislation. The violations of those laws is certainly within the power of a nation, but is not among the rights of nations.

The late Leonard Read, founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, was fond of saying that “Economics is a branch of moral philosophy.” He was right, of course, but he could have gone further. The attempt to separate economics, political activity, or any other field from sound principles of morality is to guarantee failure. No policy or program which fails morally can be ultimately successful. Take for example our huge national debt. It is immoral to foist upon future generations a burden caused by our own profligacy. We are now beginning to see the grave consequences of that immorality. The recent situation in California where employees of the state were being paid in IOUs is but a small foretaste of what will almost certainly happen elsewhere.

The Founding Fathers were strongly in favor of religious freedom for all citizens and wanted no religious test for those seeking federal office. Many of those early statesmen were indeed unorthodox in their religion, but they nevertheless were strongly of the opinion that without belief in a divine Creator and in the basic moral and ethical teachings of Jesus no lasting freedom in America could be achieved. They never rejected God nor lost their respect for religion. Moral man and religious man could not be separated.

As Washington, Adams, and Madison knew, morality springs out of religious faith and a people with little or no Christian theology will have a seriously impaired moral philosophy. That leaves us with an important insight regarding the direction in which America and Americans should go.

The crisis facing America and Americans today is not an economic nor a political one. It is a moral and spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of character which has produced a crisis of behavior. It is a poverty of values caused by a poverty of faith. We remove all value judgments from society and then wonder why we have a generation that is morally confused.

Our society has continually and increasingly dismissed the relevance of religion and as a consequence has for masses of people diminished its importance. If religion is ignored or banned then its components such as the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus are likewise made irrelevant and we arrive at the conclusion that “if there is no God then anything is permissible.” It is difficult to believe there are many who will rejoice in such a culmination.